10/21/2013 08:44 am ET Updated Dec 21, 2013

The Real Secret To Finding Happiness

Melissa Shultz

Lately, people ask me about happiness as if I know the secret to finding it. I'm not sure why, exactly. There's no smile painted on my face, or sign that reads "I'm really happy" around my neck. Perhaps it's a matter of perception -- my kids are off to college, I've been married a long time, I still get excited about the prospect of drinking a milkshake with a flexi-straw. I only know that I've done my school-of-hard-knocks research, have generous and loving aunts and uncles who've imparted their wisdom -- and that happiness is very different from what I once thought.

Before I had kids, I didn't spend much time contemplating my own happiness. I don't mean I didn't want to be happy, or wonder if I'd have a happy life -- I did. I just expected I'd be happy because the alternative sucked. That, and nobody I knew ever talked about whether or not they were happy because that would be way too intimate a conversation.

I went about my life and made my share of mistakes, hoping the good stuff would prevail. Sooner or later, it did, and before I knew it I was in my late 20s, had a career and pretty clothes to wear, a decent car, and money to pay for gas. It was all new and exciting and it felt like happiness -- looked like happiness anyway. With the career and clothes and car came more confidence, and with confidence I met a man and fell in love, and when you're in love, everything seems possible and that makes you pretty darn happy.

Eventually, I got married, bought a house, had children. Life was full, and sweet, and good -- it was everything I thought it should be. Then, as the years passed, the not-so-good began to happen: there was loss, conflict, sickness. The notion of happiness -- was I or wasn't I? -- was something I began to question. I thought about all the years I took my happiness for granted. I tried to remember what it was that made me so happy before I started to feel so unhappy. I'd study pictures from my past and think, That's from when I was happy.

Although nobody talked about happiness and their true feelings when I was younger, by the time I was in my 40s, happiness or the lack thereof was all anyone seemed to be talking about. Their story generally began with "if only." If only they had a different husband or wife, better childhoods, more money, nicer clothes, a better car, a better job (any job), were thinner, were prettier. I had my own list of if only's, many of which stemmed from my youth and the choices I made, along with storybook assumptions about happiness that didn't include reality, which can bite even the most resilient of us.

Here's what I wish I'd known when I was in the thick of my misery: happiness is a process. It's about constantly adjusting expectations to match your changing truth. At a certain point, if you really want to be happy, you have to choose to be happy. How do you do that? Stop obsessing about what you don't have, and focus instead on the good things in your life. Happiness is not going to hit you over the head -- there's no lightning-bolt "happiness" moment. The bad stuff -- that's what's going to hit you over the head. You can count on it. But if you spend more time thinking about the dark days than the light, it may keep you from seeing what's right there in front of you:

Your happiness.

Join me next week for another installment of The Pre-Empt Chronicles as I transition from full house to empty nest. Visit me at


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